The four-day working week should be our new norm - and heading for even less
It’s one of the great battle-cries of the modern era - that the working day or week can be progressively reduced, as machines become more powerful and more wealth is generated.
The standard is largely raised by the labour movement, struggling to ensure that capitalists and governors don’t just return efficiencies to the cash reserves. The dream has been that more time for self-development, community action and also just sheer relaxation is something we should collectively benefit from.
The Swedish author Rutger Bregman has been the shorter working week’s most eloquent advocate in recent years: “A shorter working week is the best instrument we have in the fight against climate change, because if we consume more of our prosperity in the form of leisure, instead of buying stuff we don't even need, well that's very good for the climate” he said to Business Insider in 2017.
“We know that the countries with the shorter working weeks like Sweden, Finland perform much better here. Also much higher social capital. People are a lot happier."
Shorter working weeks - for the same amount of pay - is a topic we want to conjure with in our community collaboratories. What could you imagine doing if you could reap an extra day or two in your week? What could you grow in yourself, or respond to in others?
We were encouraged to read this week, at the heart of an ideology that usually takes work as the ultimate virtue, these words:
The renewed call for a four-day week from Autonomy Institute is very welcome. “We want to shift people’s perspectives, to better work and less work,” says the thinktank’s Will Stronge. Indeed, a deeply unhealthy distribution of work scars our society. While some are working too much, with damaging consequences for their health and family lives, there are 3.3 million or so “underemployed” workers who want more hours.
A four-day week would force a redistribution of these hours, to the benefit of everyone. This will be even more important if automation in sectors such as manufacturing, administration and retail creates more poorly paid work and more underemployment.
A four-day working week could also help tackle climate change: as the New Economics Foundation thinktank notes, countries with shorter working weeks are more likely to have a smaller carbon footprint.
This is no economy-wrecking suggestion either. German and Dutch employees work less than we do but their economies are stronger than ours. It could boost productivity: the evidence suggests if you work fewer hours, you are more productive, hour for hour – and less stress means less time off work. Indeed, a recent experiment with a six-hour working day at a Swedish nursing home produced promising results: higher productivity and fewer sick days. If those productivity gains are passed on to staff, working fewer hours doesn’t necessarily entail a pay cut.
Then there’s the argument for gender equality. Despite the strides made by the women’s movement, women still do 60% more unpaid household work on average than men. An extra day off work is not going to inevitably lead to men pulling their weight more at home. But, as Autonomy suggests, a four-day week could be unveiled as part of a drive to promote equal relationships between men and women. A national campaign could encourage men to use their new free time to equally balance household labour, which remains defined by sexist attitudes.
…Sure, work can be a fulfilling activity for some. It strikes me, though, that few would disagree with the notion that we should spend more time with our families, watching our children grow, exercising, reading books, or just relaxing. So much of our lives is surrendered to subordinating ourselves to the needs and whims of others, turning human beings into cash cows rather than independent, well-rounded individuals.
Our social model means economic growth all too often involves concentrating wealth produced by the many into the bank accounts of the few, without improving the lives of the majority. Growth should deliver not just shared prosperity and improved public services but a better balance between work, family and leisure.